Civil Liberties

Campus Trigger Warnings Threaten Speech and Treat Students Like Children

If we want colleges to train students to be rational members of a democratic society, mandating trigger warnings is an excellent way to ensure that we fail.


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With the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, America gave 18-year-olds the right to vote and affirmed that they are legally adults. They can elect legislators, bear arms, and serve in the military. It stands to reason, then, that these young citizens should be able to handle the mature themes that they are likely to encounter as part of a true liberal arts education.

So why are today's colleges moving toward implementing a paternalistic warning system for classes that include discussions of potentially sensitive topics, such as violence, sex, racism, and abuse? The New York Times reports: "Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as 'trigger warnings,' explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans."

In February of this year, Oberlin College posted a Sexual Offense Resource Guide on its website that asked professors to proceed with caution when discussing topics that might distress "survivors of sexualized violence in their classrooms," in order to "ensure a welcoming and supportive environment" for them.

Unsurprisingly, however, this purported effort to create a more sensitive classroom was highly politicized. Oberlin's guide stressed that "sexual misconduct is inextricably tied to issues of privilege and oppression." Faculty members were advised to "[e]ducate [themselves] about racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression" and to be aware of how these issues could impact classroom discussions. The guide referred to such topics as "triggers," defining that term as "something that recalls a traumatic event to an individual."

So what advice did Oberlin have for professors whose course material might contain potential "triggers"? In a section entitled "Understand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings" (authors' emphasis), the guide asked professors to "remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals" and to "[i]ssue a trigger warning" when such material could not be eliminated altogether. Amazingly, Oberlin also noted that "[a]nything could be a trigger—a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on."

Oberlin professors were less than thrilled with essentially being required to read the minds of their students to determine what sounds or smells might cause them trauma. Following widespread criticism, the policy was quickly taken down.

In The New Republic, Jenny Jarvie provides a brief history of trigger warnings: "Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. … As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use." While trigger warnings may have originated in an obscure corner of the Internet, their arrival on campus shows that they are transitioning into other realms and having a larger impact on discourse.

Oberlin's policy required faculty to act as parents: Much like a mother accompanying her young child to an action film, professors were asked to determine whether the students in their classes were capable of handling certain content. The important difference, however, is that college students aren't ten years old. They're adults. As such, they need to be able to handle topics that adults encounter in daily life.

While Oberlin appears to be reconsidering its trigger warning guidelines, the concept is gaining traction at other universities. The University of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB) is in the process of implementing such a policy after student leaders passed a "Resolution to Mandate Warnings For Triggering Content in Academic Settings" in February. The UCSB resolution uses less broad language than Oberlin's guide, but its effect is much the same. It urges professors to provide trigger warnings on their syllabi for any course materials that touch upon issues such as "Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore."

Unlike the Oberlin policy, the UCSB resolution does not explicitly ask professors to avoid using such material altogether. But it still places professors in the parental position of determining whether a particular book or film contains content that will distress their students and issuing appropriate warnings "well in advance of triggering content." The resolution explains that students who might feel unable to discuss such issues will then have "the choice to be present or not." In other words, they can decide that a particular lecture may be just too difficult for them to endure, and can simply stay home that day.

An Inadequate Solution for a Medical Problem

So what's the problem with being sensitive? After all, the stated intent of the UCSB resolution is to protect those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an acknowledged condition that affects roughly 7.7 million American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Oberlin's advice doesn't mention PTSD specifically, but still attempts to prevent students from "recall[ing] a traumatic event."

PTSD is a serious issue among survivors of everything from rape to terrorist attacks like 9/11. But if students are suffering from PTSD to the extent that even curricular mentions of violence (sexual or otherwise) bring on symptoms of the disorder, that's an actual mental health problem that should be addressed by medical or counseling professionals—not faculty making their best guesses at which Shakespeare play is too much for their students to handle.

If it were possible to live in a world without triggering events, the arguments advanced by trigger warning advocates might have more merit. But students will eventually leave campus, entering a world filled with triggers—sights, smells, sounds, and traumatic events alike. Attempts to create a bubble-wrapped campus environment devoid of triggers is doomed to failure because of their unpredictable nature. Even if such an effort were to succeed, the "best" possible outcome would be to delay the diagnosis and treatment of students with PTSD for four years, rather than getting them the help they will need to deal with life after college.

What's the Cost?

Anders Ljungberg / Foter

Proponents of trigger warnings don't usually dwell on their costs—but they are significant. Slapping a warning label on academic speech is sure to stifle the spirit of free and open inquiry that must exist at an institution of higher learning. During their college years, students should be learning to become critical thinkers. Students develop that ability by encountering and exploring a wide range of ideas, some of which might be alien, offensive, or deeply challenging. In doing so, they test their own beliefs and the beliefs of others, discarding some and adopting new ones. The analytical skills they develop along the way will enable them to tackle important issues throughout their lives, long after they graduate.

Oberlin, in fact, implicitly acknowledges this cost in its now-shelved guidelines. It states, "Sometimes a work is too important to avoid. For example, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more." The just-barely-unstated corollary to this is that works less masterful (as judged by Oberlin) than Achebe's are not worth exploring, given their capacity to trigger students. And the number of works of science, art, and literature that would, in Oberlin's opinion, be less of a "triumph" than Things Fall Apart is undoubtedly vast.

When a college places limits on the topics their students can encounter, it effectively robs them of a complete education. To attend college is (or should be) to deliberately seek out an experience in which one will wrestle with humanity's most serious issues. Students and professors must be able to discuss such topics like the adults they are. Trigger warning policies make this kind of discourse less likely to take place. Instead, they send the troubling message that professors should avoid ideas that could potentially spark an emotional response from their students, and they guarantee that the students who skip certain lectures or assignments will not receive the full benefit of the classroom experience.

This is of particular concern in fields where "triggering" subjects are likely to be important to the understanding of the subject matter; the warnings guarantee the result of a student body that is less informed and knowledgeable about the subject. Imagine attempting to lead a classroom discussion about, say, the Rape of Nanking in the context of a "trigger warning" campus. Virtually no detail of that or many other sorry chapters of human history is less than massively disturbing. Yet avoiding or glossing over the many distressing aspects of war—or, worse, allowing students to skip lessons on it altogether—will leave students with a very incomplete comprehension of the subject. As Conor Friedersdorf writes in his piece on trigger warnings, "Surely college students should know what's coming when they set out to plumb human civilization. A huge part of it is a horror show. To spare us upset would require morphine."

And it doesn't have to be the brutal reality of history. It's difficult to earn an English degree, for instance, without reading one of the aforementioned Shakespeare plays—and it's difficult to read one of Shakespeare's plays without stumbling across trigger after trigger after trigger. The UCSB resolution includes topics like "Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore." Shakespeare's works cover just about every item on this list, often within a single play.

So should we discourage students who are sensitive to these issues from earning an English degree? (Or sociology, anthropology, or criminology, for that matter?) Should we rob an English degree of all meaning by excusing these students from delving into the darker portions of literature? Is there, in fact, a single subject in the liberal arts that one can fully explore without meeting a trigger head-on?

Another Cost: The Inevitability of Bad Faith

Moreover, measures that restrict speech—particularly those as broad and vague as requested by the UCSB resolution—are easily co-opted by those who want to limit or eliminate the discussion of an idea they dislike. People who oppose certain points of view can use such policies to justify their quests to silence them. In eleven years of defending free speech on campus one of the authors of this article, Robert Shibley, has seen this happen time after time. Human nature being what it is, too many people are quick to seize any opportunity to shut down speech that offends or upsets them.

You don't have to look too far from UCSB for examples of this kind of behavior. In fact, you don't even need to leave campus. Just this March, a feminist studies professor at UCSB used the concept of insensitivity to validate an extreme example of censorship that included vandalism and assault. Professor Mireille Miller-Young was angered by a pro-life activist carrying a sign that displayed images of aborted fetuses, so she snatched the sign from the student and eventually destroyed it. Video footage reveals that Miller-Young actually shoved one of the protestors when the student tried to retrieve the sign.

The Daily Nexus, UCSB's student newspaper, shed light on the professor's rationale for her actions: "Miller-Young said she had a 'moral' right in taking the poster, as showing graphic imagery was 'insensitive' and a violation of University policy." She claimed that she found the poster to be "insensitive" and "offensive as a pregnant woman who teaches about women's 'reproductive rights,'" and stated that "her response to the protestors may have been influenced by the fact that she is preparing to undergo a test that will determine if her child has Down Syndrome." In fact, Miller-Young told the UCSB Police Department "that she felt 'triggered' by the images on the poster," adding that "other students in the area were 'triggered' in a negative way by their imagery," as well.

While Miller-Young's behavior is startling because it involves physical violence, it's far from surprising. Today's college students, faculty, and staff members often go to great lengths to silence unpopular speech. Sadly, the examples keep on coming. This month, Amherst College, which has long banned official fraternities, also prohibited students from participating in unrecognized fraternities and "fraternity-like" organizations. Of course, this led to some protests against the decision, and a corresponding backlash against the protests. Among the backlash was this complaint about the pro-fraternity advocates: "Your protest is triggering, so don't pretend you care about student voices and student needs." Triggering, like so many other campus fashions, is becoming just the latest excuse to engage in a tradition as old as civilization: muzzling one's opponents.

The Return of In Loco Parentis

Prior to the 1960s, it was assumed that colleges and universities would stand in loco parentis (in the place of the parents) when it came to their students. The campus foment of the 1960s, capped off by the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1971, was thought to have ended the era of in loco parentis and its distinctively paternalistic features, like curfews for women on campus, disciplinary action for perceived moral failures, single-sex dorms that barred members of the opposite sex from even visiting, and restrictions on free speech. Yet today's campuses are slowly rebuilding themselves into even stricter parents than they were in the 1950s.

By adopting measures like restrictive speech codes, free speech zones, and mandatory "training" on how to speak to and relate with other students, colleges have long been creating an environment similar to that of living with an inflexible and officious parent. Trigger warnings now threaten to drag the protective impulse of parenting into the college curriculum itself. If we want colleges to train students to be rational, free-thinking, fully participating members of a democratic society, mandating trigger warnings is an excellent way to ensure that we fail.